To understand the frustrations, even despair, of the twenty somethings, you could cite vast data on unemployment, low wages, shattered friend networks, boomerang living arrangements, and frustrated hopes. In this respect, millennials are suffering more than any other age group, losing jobs even as every other age group is gaining them.

Or you could just turn on the radio and hear it from yourself. Reflect, for example, on this line from a song rising in the charts right now: “Out of student loans and treehouse homes we all would take the latter.”

Treehouses? They are charming, the stuff of fond childhood memories. The simple joys of childhood are looking pretty great to this highly educated generation. In the past, this age group revelled in youth and looked to an awesome future. Now we see signs of a culturally strange atavism settling in on today’s’ young adults.

The song is “Stressed Out” by “Twenty One Pilots.” It captures the mood of the moment. The repeated motif that remains the most memorable is this: “Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days.”

And what are those days? Sometime between infancy and adulthood “when our momma sang us to sleep.” These were times of safety, material provision, no real responsibility, and fun. This compares with what confronts them immediately following college, neatly summed up in the worst possible and least expected state of mind: “now we’re stressed out.”

Why stressed out? Students loans, for sure. They’ve sat in classrooms for 16 years to prepare, and remain the most studied generation in American history. And yet, where’s the payoff? Where’s the awesome status that they expected? It turns out that they entered the workforce with no experience, which means they lack a realistic conception about what it means to provide more value in than you take out of a company. And once they do manage to make money, the substantial part that remains after taxes (to pay for systems they will never use) goes toward paying interest on the loan.

But there is a bigger sense in which longing for a bygone era is about the perception of progress. Can we expect to be richer, more comfortable, and more secure than our parents? Or is the trajectory of history getting worse: will we be worse off? The answer to these questions unearth our inner eschatologist and its answer to the great question of whether the future is brighter or dimmer than the present.

Wake Up and Make Money

The song continues: “Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face, Saying, ‘wake up, you need to make money.’”

Once-happy dreams of the future have become the drudgery of the mundane present. This song reveals an underlying theme of having been conned. “I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink; but now I’m insecure and I care what people think.”

It is tempting to snap at this generational attitude with a bit of condescension: poor, coddled babies; welcome to the real world. And yet, this dismissal misses the mark. They might be spoiled in ways no generation ever has been, and, yet, they are also the most misled and victimized by the civic pieties of their youth.

The Appeal of Socialism

To understand this is to see why college students are drawn to the rhetoric and agenda of Bernie Sanders. He promises to wipe away their loans and to make remaining college classes free. Then he provides a scapegoat for their economic fears by demonizing the millionaires and billionaires, as if to say “there’s the money; let’s go and get it.” It’s a campaign based on fear and rooted in envy, but it connects to a generation that perceives itself to be deeply victimized.

The critical questions: who is really to blame and what should be done about it? Here is where no one is telling the truth. A major reason for bleak job prospects is the lack of experience and the lack of a network. These come about because they have been sitting in classrooms (mostly forced to do so) and have constantly avoided remunerative work.

The high costs of college make it impossible to “work you way through school” as people did only a two decades ago. Labor regulation effectively bars young people from working in any case. And a sticky job market makes millennials an expensive risk for any employer.

This is not the fault of loan sharks or billionaires. It’s the fault of bad public policy that has created legal restrictions for young people to become acculturated to the world of work gradually as they grow up. They aren’t allowed in, and, by the time they are, they have developed other interests. Instead, they are tossed out into a cold, cruel world — about which they know nothing — at the old age of 22, and sent them out there with paper entitlements that are not backed by genuine market value.

The prolonged infantilization of millennials is underscored by the drinking-age laws, which are surely the least-obeyed laws in the country apart from speed limits. People underestimate the social signalling of such laws. Society tells young adults that they can’t be trusted to have a beer or a glass of wine with dinner, and they get the message that they are immature. They drink anyway, without social supervision, and do so in the most immature way imaginable.

Adulthood is delayed and delayed in the physical world, even as it comes hard and fast in the digital world where age barely matters at all, creating dissonance in self understanding among this generation. When they are finally free of school, restrictions, prohibitions, and debilitations, they are sent out into an adult world, with which they have little familiarity, unsure whether they are young or old, and told to fend for themselves.

Would this lead to the onset of demoralization? Absolutely. What should really stress them out is not work as such but policies that have denied them an integrated life experience with hopeful forward motion. It’s freedom and not socialism that gives you that.